Friday, December 18, 2015

Religious instruction in public schools

You have probably heard about the angry reaction to a homework assignment in a geography class at Riverheads High School in Staunton, Virginia. In an attempt to show students the artistry of the letters of the Arabic language, pupils were asked to copy a phrase that is translated "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah." This was a standard assignment from a textbook, not one created by the teacher.

While some of the responses to the assignment may have been over the top, it is easy to see why many were outraged. The phrase that students were asked to recreate is known as the shahada, the first of the five pillars of Islam. From an evangelical Christian perspective, the assignment would be roughly equivalent to asking all students to copy John 3:16. Many Christians balked at students being forced to learn in a public school the fundamental statement of faith of another religion and it's not hard to see why.

This episode illustrates why it is crucial to preserve separation of church and state. Learning about the faith statements of other religions is a fruitful exercise in the proper setting. Loving our neighbors certainly includes getting to know them, including their religion if they have one, especially if that religion is different. 

As an academic exercise, students should learn about other religions. Yet they should not be required to write or say the central affirmation of faith of any religion. The former is an important educational exercise about our world while the latter could be construed as a confession of faith.  

This incident shows how problematic it would be to remove the wall of separation between church and state. If government forces religious instruction on any citizen then that citizen's religious liberty is abridged. If all are not free then none are free. The best way to ensure religious liberty for all is through the mechanism of church-state separation. 

Certainly the timing of this case is unfortunate. Again, Christians are called to love their neighbors, including their Muslim neighbors. Recently our public discourse has included some vitriolic statements against Muslims and the event in Staunton, Virginia could further inflame such sentiments which is tragic. Nonetheless, this controversial homework assignment and the reaction to it reminds us that we are blessed to live in a land that enshrines religious liberty in its founding documents through separation of church and state.  

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Keeping Muslims out and shutting down mosques

A certain presidential candidate is getting a lot of attention because he advocates closing the borders of the United States to Muslims. He is, thankfully, being condemned from nearly every direction, it seems. Other candidates from his own party as well as other leaders from his own party have denounced his plan.

But what about the anti-Muslim comment made last month by the same candidate? It was about three weeks ago, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, that the same candidate proposed closing mosques in this country. In fact, he said that we would "have no choice" but to shut down some mosques. That comment got some attention, but I don't think it made as big of a splash as this latest one.

In the space of about three weeks, a leading presidential candidate has offered two proposals for addressing terrorism that destroy the notion of religious liberty. Baptists have traditionally proclaimed that if all are not free then none are free. We cannot shut down the houses of worship of any religious group or close our borders to members of any religion and still claim to support religious liberty for all. And if we don't advocate religious liberty for all then we don't support religious liberty at all.

One of the very first Baptists, Thomas Helwys, wrote the very first treatise on religious freedom in the English language in 1612. Helwys wrote, "Let them be heretikes, Turks [i.e. Muslims], Jewes or whatsoever, it apperteynes not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure." John Leland was a Baptist minister and a leader in the struggle for the Bill of Rights in this country. He was one of a few from the revolutionary era writing that religious tolerance was not enough. According to Leland, "all should be equally free, Jews, Turks [i.e. Muslims], Pagans, and Christians." From our earliest days, Baptists have singled out Muslims as they have advocated religious freedom for all.

My primary interest in this matter is not my desire for the success or failure of any particular candidate for office. My passion is for religious liberty which is a God-given right, not a governmental gift or privilege to be taken away from any individual or group for any reason. If our fears drive us to reject the cherished, God-given right of religious freedom then the terrorists win.